November 19, 2013

Slipping in the back... quietly.

   Of course your own life is your truest story and it blinds you unless it is heavily edited.
              Jim Harrison, p.2, Off to the Side

     I haven't really reconciled myself to the idea of being a writer, at least in the sense of assuming there would be at least a modicum of consistent output. Having said that, and though there is no real evidence to support a viable move in that direction as of yet, I nevertheless periodically run the idea up my personal flag pole, sit down and attempt to make sense out of the mosh of itinerant musings bouncing around in my head. 
      Maybe that's what derails me. Trying to connect all the dots. 

      It's been at least seven months since my last post, for those of you who are keeping score. That might seem like a long time, I guess, when thought of in the conventional, day-to-day, put a line through them on the calendar-style of timekeeping. For me, it's been a blur. Maybe that's what happens as we age, although I'm supposing that as if I had some experience with getting old; I'd be assuming then that I understand just exactly how my aging process works. But, in looking at where I am now in reference to total years spent, the gradual process of learning how to dial in on a certain facet of my life to the extent that all else becomes quite frivolous or encumbering might have something to do with the accelerated passing blur of larger and larger chunks of time, at the same time understanding that it is more than favorably offset by increasingly frequent periods of nothing less than total liberation. A more than equitable tradeoff, in my mind. Not that I've shirked my duties or obligations to others along my way, quite to the contrary. I've been johnny-on-the-spot wherever, whenever I've been needed, and I keep my yard clean and teeth brushed, but more and more there is less and less room in my shrinking cylinder for that which does not involve all things revolving around casting a fly onto moving water. I suppose I could've said just that and let it be, but since I believe there's more here than meets the eye, I've returned to my blog in what I hope will be more than another wordy exercise in a frustrating effort to sort out it all out. Maybe more for me than anyone else, I'm trying to make a semblance of sense out of my journey. Especially the last seven months. The period of enlightenment is really a time for discovery. Upon examination of my discoveries, I have now arrived at the next dissemination waypoint.

      I think the last post had me out at Rocky Ford, remarking on the fact that I was just happy to be there blah blah. I was, and will be again, I'm sure. Big fish are big fish, they're fun to watch, to stalk, and fabulous to feel on the end of a good rod no matter what else you may conjure up to throw at me.
      After the interminably long doldrum of spring it eventually came to be summer and the river. I'm not going to give a blow-by-blow of the fishing, save for the fact that it was the Spokane at it's beguiling best. Sometimes good, sometimes not-so-good, almost always a mystery. Flows were good enough by mid-June to begin the search in earnest and I was there regularly.
By mid-July I'd begun my two/days, totally submerged in the tunnel of my fishing routine. On the river before dawn. Fish until the sun shut them down (depended where I was), head home to clean lines, tie/conceptualize flies etc., and oh yeah maybe mow the lawn and eat something and by then it was time to figure out where to be fishing as darkness enveloped me. Fish until I couldn't lift my arm and then get home and start the process all over again with maybe a meal and some sleep in between. Exceptional days. Not so much in regard to numbers of fish brought to hand, but in the way I chose to spend them. It was during this period when that little voice in my head finally went silent. 
     I began to see time passing, and the way it did, from a different perspective. In allowing myself the freedom to pursue total immersion, it became easier to flow through all the congestion that attaches itself to real life. Time lost became less and less problematic; it will happen, often, and letting it get to me wasn't going to get it back. The best way to deal with it was to 'keep my eye on the ball'. Easy to say, harder to facilitate, until presented with an extended period of perfect conditions that seemed to reward me as long as I kept 'my eye on the ball'. And when I did, I granted myself the ability to see what, in all likelihood, I'd been seeking for a very long time without knowing what it was I was chasing. 
     The weather was nearly perfect, cooperating to the extent that I got a little superstitious and made a bit of a conscious effort not to take notice, without much success.  
     Several good flies evolved into being over the summer, and most of them have found a permanent spot in my box and therefore my future river strategy. A couple of them have become 'go-tos', fish catchers no matter where I use them. I should've taken pictures of each of them as they transformed from one to the next, but I say that every fall. When it's all said and done there will have been a lot of pictures.
 I didn't fish with dries very often last summer, at least on the Spokane. On each occasion it was to fish rising to blue-winged olives. I resisted the temptation only so long before caving in, lengthening my leader and playing the game, but I was thrilled to finally hook several fish on a cripple concept I've been toying with for a few years. When it comes to BWOs on the Spokane, they will come off in prolific numbers for days at a time, but as the hatch progresses each day the window of opportunity shrinks until finally you must have the perfect fly on the water at the most opportune moment in the most advantageous drift or it'll all amount to little more than a multi-layered casting exercise. Time was when I would spend untold hours plying the waters with every imaginable artificial trying to figure out what would work. My quest fizzled when it dawned on me that the fish get extremely dialed in to what they want because the surface film is absolutely covered with them. Trying to discern which one is yours is difficult enough without factoring in how many real ones are in very close proximity to your fly. 
      But, when caddis were out and fish were willing to come to the surface, I swung soft hackles through and did quite well. The caddis more often than not coincided with the olive hatch and the fish were inexplicably not eager to show themselves for anything that was offered, natural or imitative. There were many days where the surface was absolutely covered with hatching BWOs and caddis and yet nowhere could I see even a single nose breaking the surface.      
   Along came August. The fishing was still good, as it always is, but the catching part slowed considerably. My rod of choice at this time had become my 5120. It allowed me to reach out some distance further than my 5100. In my way of thinking, probably flawed but making perfect sense to me at the time, getting the soft hackle to water that was beyond the limit of most casters would put the fly in front of fish that hadn't been hammered with this year's crop of flies.
And, for the most part the strategy worked quite well. But the flows kept receding, and soon enough it was back to favoring all the off stretches and little slots that most everyone else would pass by. Since it was no big deal if I came up empty through these areas, it was always a thrill to hook up, especially when the fish was a sizable beast that had probably taken up station there to keep a low profile. Usually it was one and done, and if there wasn't a take on the first or second swing, well, it was time to move on. 
      As August reached its midpoint, my son and I hit the road for Oregon and the Metolius River. I'd read about it for years, getting caught up in the mystique, and so when Aaron asked where we should go on our less than annual fishing trip this year, I hesitated not a second and spit out, "the Metolius River"...
     And so off we went, and got our collective asses kicked. 
     For three days we fished our brains out, covering every inch of water that ran through the series of campgrounds upstream from Camp Sherman. Three or four miles of beautiful, fishy-looking, rather fast-moving water. Upon our arrival we were chagrinned to find that the lower section was still closed due to the fire situation which put an immediate crimp in our plans. Still, we hit the water each day with renewed determination, only to return to our Smiling River camp several hours later, tails between our legs. I felt bad for Aaron. I'd really built that place up. Despite the lack of catching, he really impressed me with his patient approach to the increasingly depressive atmosphere surrounding our stay. In fact, he  basically out fished me while donning the mantle of the optimist.  I spent a lot of time morosely going through the motions,  but enjoyed watching my son fish. I've said it before and I'll say it again; for as much as he gets on the water, it's amazing what he's managed to figure out.
 Having a new rod in his hands also helped. A few weeks prior to our trip I was pleasantly surprised to open an e-mail from him with pictures of his brand new Sage 486-4 XP and a new Ross reel lined with a Scientific Anglers GPX, all of which made his time on the water much more pleasing, and not only for him! It was easy to see that he was finally really in touch with his rod and line and enjoying the feeling that a good cast can bring. 
     Time after time I watched him from forty feet or so fearlessly drop his fly into thin bare spots between the bushes overhanging the bank and then cannily manage his drifts, secretly pulling for a strike. The guy can wade, too. The Metolius, a spring creek, is swift and cold, flowing over lava beds that are cracked, angled, and covered with a slippery combination of algae, grasses and moss. I got my myself into trouble several times unwittingly following along thinking I'd handle whatever he'd just waded through with as much ease as he did. It's frustrating to be reminded of my slowly diminishing abilities, but I took umbrage in the idea that this really wasn't about or for me. It struck me that I was watching him through the eyes of a teacher who has been surpassed by his student. There's a lot of pride involved in that realization. On our last full day he hooked up, drifting a heavy, soft hackled fly through a deep undercut that I'd tied for the Spokane. Alas, I was upstream plumbing the depths of a rare piece of slower water and missed his triumph. Chagrin, again.
      On our way to the Metolius, we drove past first the Crooked River and then skirted close to the Deschutes. After our first two days had ended with zeroes, I'd suggested we take a little road trip. My idea was dismissed; surely we'd figure it out and get back on track. 
       Three weeks later on a Thursday, I packed up the Suburban, calibrated the Garmin and set out for the Deschutes on my own. I stepped through the doors of the Deschutes Angler in Maupin about 5 hours later. Good folks. No pretentiousness, just friendly talk and reliable information. By noon I'd set up at a great campsite about 7 miles upstream from town. 
 I fell in love with Maupin at first sight. If I ever decide that I need to get out of here, well, look for me there. And it's full of characters, folks who eat, sleep and breathe fishing, both for trout and steelhead. I'm sure that during the fishing season the town's population doubles. It'd be nice to see what's left when the snow flies, although something tells me that a lot of those characters are still there, sitting in the Oasis munching on outrageous cheeseburgers and telling lies.

        Thursday night had been magical. After my initial foray earlier that afternoon, I'd returned to camp to heat up my dinner and was treated to the sight of several October Caddis fluttering along the bank through the bushes. As the shadows grew, so did the numbers of those big orange Caddis, using any and every bush that protruded out over the water as an anchor point. Thousands of them. Soon splashing fish were appearing all over the river, especially on my side! Big fish, and they were definitely after any thing big that got close to or was unlucky enough to be stuck in the surface film. I sat, mesmerized, watching many fish come clear out of the water as they chased their prey. Amazing! And it was all happening right in front of me! I grabbed for my waders, fumbling about almost hysterically trying to get rigged and on the water before the whole thing ended, which it didn't. The nearly full moon rising over the hills downstream allowed me to stay on the water until well after ten and I brought several nice rainbows and a couple of big browns to hand. What a dream sequence it was. Once I understood that my #10 October Caddis needed to be twitched occasionally as it drifted I was at once rewarded with aggressive takes and a couple of break-offs. To look downstream into the moonlight on the river and see hundreds of yards of splashing fish is a sight I will take with me forever. 
              I was up early Friday morning, having finally fallen into a few hours of sleep after the adrenalin rush of the previous night's glory, formulating a plan for the day at the picnic table, sipping coffee in the pre-dawn next to my tent right smack dab on the river. There was a space between the bushes on the bank of the river. I was absently staring into the water there when I caught sight of a large fish slowly pushing upstream in the trough running just off the bank. It had to be a steelhead. Plan formulated. I grabbed my 5120, a box of flies, donned my waders and gear, and headed downstream to a section of the river where yesterday I watched a couple of fishermen swinging flies with long rods.
          By the time I'd made a fly choice and waded to a good starting point, it was almost sun-up. There should be a line underneath this section saying,"this is Steve's first attempt at steelhead while on his own", because that's what was running through my head as I stripped line for my first exploratory cast. The main flow here was pretty swift. The seam was well defined and about thirty feet out, so as the fly swung downstream to about eleven o'clock it would be pulled into much slower water. As the line edged toward the bank at the end of the swing I'd let it slowly go taut and begin a smooth, short strip retrieve. I noticed a pick-up truck emerge from the shadows a few hundred yards  downstream, slowly moving up the horrid little gravel road that parallels the river, stopping every now and then to survey the river. On my third cast, I reached out a little more, mended a modest amount of line out behind the fly and settled in to watch my line as it bellied and began pulling the fly. I remember hearing the pickup slow and pull onto the soft gravel of a small turnout just above me. I heard a door shut, heard footsteps on the gravel and then, as the fly transitioned from the swift current through the seam there was a sudden staggering jolt on my rod immediately followed by the sight of a large fish hurling itself into the air in a spastic somersault, with my fly in the corner of its mouth. It was all I could do maintain a good hold on the rod while the fish turned, hastened for the swift water and then downstream, catapulting itself into the air time and time again punctuated by short but scary periods of savage head shakes. My Cheeky shed line at a ridiculous rate and I was reduced to little more than standing thigh deep simply trying to hold on as I watched the backing knot rip up through the guides and disappear into the river. A 5120 is a stout rod, for trout. A steelhead is something else, though, and as the fish got further and further downstream, I began to seriously doubt I'd see it again. So much energy! My thoughts bounced back and forth from sheer joy to dismay to panic. It felt like the fish was getting stronger as the battle went on, and I wondered aloud to no one but me what should I do next, knowing full well that the only thing I could do now was to chase him, and that meant a helter skelter run/stumble downstream over uneven lava rock and slippery shale. All I can say is that adrenalin is an amazing substance! 
      I'd moved down fifty, maybe sixty yards, alternately stopping or slowing to either test the fish's resolve (or my own) or to respool whatever line I might have regained. It was here that he turned, if only momentarily, but when he did he gradually began heading upstream in my direction. I got on the reel and quickly found that suddenly I couldn't keep up with his approach unless I either backed up or started stripping or both. And it seemed to me then that if I tried to horse him at all, he simply turned and took line back again, so it became a game of a few feet gained then some of that lost if I asserted myself too much. His streaky dashes had shortened considerably, but he still had enough left to demand my respect and attentiveness, especially when he went into those spasm-like head shakes. 
     It was about this time that I realized I had some company. A wader-clad gentleman stood on the bank, a huge pair of binoculars around his neck.
    "That was a classic!", he exclaimed, "I saw him turn! What a take!"
      It took what seemed like an eternity to get him out of the current into slower water where I could more effectively manage him. The fly was lodged securely in his left upper jaw which meant as he faced upstream he could resist being pulled toward me by simply maintaining his position in the current. Still, he persisted in sudden short-lived dashes for deeper water, and, as I slowly gained the upper hand, rolled incessantly when his energy flagged. 
    Finally, triumphantly, as I brought him past me for the fifth or sixth time I was able to firmly grasp his tail. He lay, exhausted on his side, my fly embedded in his jaw. It struck me that I was out of breath, and also that I'd had a witness!
    For a wild Deschutes steelhead, he was of reasonable size, measuring about 27 inches. Still very fresh and bright. I worked the fly easily from his jaw and turned him upstream. My hands and legs were shaking. It wasn't long before I felt him regaining strength and after a couple of attempts to escape, I let go of his tail. He hovered there for a second or two, allowing me one last close look, and then, with a quick thrash of his tail, he was gone. I stood, turned toward shore, and took the extended hand of the gentleman who had been my witness.
     "Well done", he said, as we shook hands. "I was coming up the road scouting and saw you were at the top of the run I fished through yesterday, so I pulled off to watch. What a show!" 
     And so we chatted for awhile. Straight away he wanted to see the fly, was surprised by its size, but impressed that I'd gotten, in his words,'the colors right'. Also, according to him, I was fishing with a fly that was about half as big as the articulated stuff he was swinging with his old 9140. When I extended my rod to him, he shook his head in disbelief.
     "Now I see why the small fly. You obviously know what you're doing. Haven't seen you here before, do you fish the Deschutes a lot?" I told him no, this was my first time here, and this was the second steelhead I'd ever hooked and landed in my life. He grinned, shook his head, and told me I was breaking a very old rule. "Nobody hooks up here the first time. That's not supposed to happen. Not here."
     After a few more minutes of back and forth, he looked at his watch, we shook hands again and he clambered back up the hill to his truck. After I heard his truck start and move off upstream, I cupped the fly in my hand and sat down for awhile. It seemed the right thing to do, because I'd just experienced a quintessential moment in my life, and I wanted to savor it for awhile. 
      The next day and a half were spent in search of a repeat of that morning's success. I didn't even get a bump. I made a lot of good casts onto water that looked every bit as sweet as the place where I'd hooked up. I tried every last one of the steelhead flies in my box. Nothing. It didn't matter. I'd broken through. And, I'd been allowed entrance into a world that until now I hadn't experienced. It is both humbling and addictive. One strike, one fish, and my journey is forever altered. I could never know that it would be so until it happened. And yet, maybe it was really just a matter of time. Maybe I was destined to finally understand what it is to feel the unmitigated strength of such a noble fish only after I'd somehow measured up against whatever standard the gods determine, I don't know. What I do know is that the years I spent swinging flies in search of trout had pointed the way to this day, to that fish, to that run, and to that place so far from my home water. And the best part of it all? I did it all myself.

       I like to think that the cumulative effect of my years has allowed me to begin to realize what makes me tick. I think we all ascribe to that theory, although maybe some of us grow more adept at deciphering the codes along the way. And we're all blessed (or cursed) with any number of quirks, deficiencies and eccentricities (DNA gifts or independently acquired) that are going to either make or break you as your years unfold. Maybe not a big deal through a good chunk of your life, but at some point, the feeling that 'time's a wastin' begins to elbow it's way into conscious thought. If and when you finally break the code and understand, it's either "we blew it Billy" or "now is the time".
        Fishing with flies has long been a much larger part of my life than I still yet realize. I'm getting closer to understanding all the ramifications of my involvement. I suppose there is no finite way to estimate the real impact it's had on my life beyond the fact that I still have a liver. But I'm getting further and further down the road; far enough now to know there's an end to all this and it's closer all the while I'm tying this, casting there or staring into my Garmin in search of another blue squiggle, and I begin to understand that what I've been given in return for my obsession will probably never be truly appreciated until I can't do it anymore. Only then will I fully understand. I think that's how it should be, how it should end. And, having said that, I can also finally clearly see that the best is surely yet to come. 
      All I need to do is to find the way. The journey doesn't really ever end!

April 19, 2013

Tangible ups... and zen.

  A rare experience of a moment at daybreak, when something in nature seems to reveal all consciousness...
                                                           Charles Ives

     In the time it took me to lock up the truck, descend the small hill, cross the bridge and head upstream, the sky had lightened considerably. The stars had been painted over in the pastels of approaching dawn while  mists still rose from the slowly moving water upstream.

    Another perfect morning. Can any morning that finds me poised in or near trout water with rod in hand not be? 
   As the years roll back on behind, when I take the time to stop and think about it, I am increasingly aware of the creeping notion that indeed, just as the saying goes, 'the fishing's always good' to the point that I find the act of fishing beginning to supercede the need for catching. Not that I don't live for 'the take' or the bent rod or the bow wakes, but more and more often I 'catch' myself just kind of enjoying the moment. Like right now, leisurely strolling head up, taking in the brightening sky and the feel of this new day. There are rings appearing here and there, slowly expanding away from their origins, and I still come to point, but it's a divided focus. There will be plenty of time to address those rings, and the fish for the next few hours, but right now I feel more inclined to kind of just space it out and be part of the quietude. And it feels pretty good to do just that.
    I've found that there's a tangible upside to this emerging attitude, too. A relaxed state of mind; one that's more content to take it as it comes, to not press, makes me a better fisherman. More to the point, and this is easy to quantify, is that in being kind of 'just happy to be here', I don't press. I don't force it. I tend to let it flow. And I know when I'm stepping outside of myself in that regard because if I've learned anything about fishing with flies, it's this; the fish know when you're in that zone. They really know. It must be something, some vibration, some kind of empathetical resonance maybe? I don't know what to call it, but its existence has been proven to me time and time again. I can't begin to count the number of occasions over the years whereby I turned to glance upstream, lost my self in a quick study of the antics of a shorebird or some furry resident, and turned back to my fly or indicator to discover the immediate significance of its absence. Not so hard to explain if it occurs only infrequently, baffling when it does with regularity. When it occurs frequently enough to add looking away to my repertoire, then I've got to wonder. And, being a good fisherman, that is, one with an almost innate ability to reason things like that out and come to some sort of what seems to me to be a viable solution, well, the best I can do is to give the fish credit. They must know when I look away. They know when my energy is  temporarily diffused, when my power of concentration has been derailed. That has to be it, doesn't it? The secret for real success then must lie in either my or the fishes' ability to connect with what is undoubtedly one of the more ethereal dimensions of fishing. Sounds pretty zen-ish. Or nuts. Take your pick.
     So here we are, a little more than halfway through April. The Spokane had begun its annual rage, approaching 20,000 cfs. But then, after those few days of warming temperatures and what turned out to be blossoming false hope, that recent phenomenon of colder than normal temps set back in and the river subsided. In fact, because of the snow at higher altitude, snowpacks have increased in the past week. Today's low was 26 degrees. Not very conducive to a gradual meltdown and runoff if the script repeats itself. So, today the river runs a bit under 13,000 which means it's about a thousand cfs under what would 'normally' be average run-off for this time of year.
Graph of  Discharge, cubic feet per second

 Upside? Hm... I'm still working on that. Downside(s)? Plenty of 'em. Worst case scenarios whirl in my head. Another year of washed out hatches comes readily to mind; another year of being unable to effectively wade until mid-July... but, I'll take the higher ground here, and say that it's still 'early', that there's still time for Ma Nature to right the ship and get back to whatever normalcy is left in her scheme. I say that through clenched teeth, a little voice in the back of my head asking, "just what, my fine fellow, is this 'normal' that you hope for?"


   There's just no way to know what the weather is going to do; if the temperatures will stay low, moderate, or if they'll suddenly spike and set the torrents of melt loose all at once. That's been the scenario for the past three years, and each time it does it reeks absolute havoc with the hatches, notably the early season caddis and BWOs. I could drive myself crazy with this useless supposition so I'll plant a foot and change direction.


    Tomorrow being Thursday, I'll be making the weekly drive back out to 'The Ford'. Rocky Ford, home to the often over-sized but incredibly well fed, alternately gullible mostly finicky but nearly always entertaining rainbow trout. I call the big ones 'roundtail' trout, so named because of the damage sustained by living for a portion of their year in cement causeways until they've contributed to the propagation process at the hatchery which lies at the top of this spring creek. It's fishbowl fishing at best; there's nothing quite like sneaking up on a run full of trout that are spending their lives being scrutinized, or better yet traumatized by so many fly fishermen of all ability levels. That's why I go on Thursday, and I get there oh-dark-thirty early so I might enjoy maybe three, sometimes up to four hours of semi-solitude. If it's a warm day and the wind holds off there'll be thirty guys there by noon, most of them stomping up and down both sides of the creek, their presence always preceded by bow wakes streaming toward whatever deeper water the bow wake makers can find. The banks are a loamy mud honeycombed with holes and tunnels, a by-product of any area populated by muskrats, otters, weasels, and snakes, so any and or all vibrations echo underwater, alerting the fish (and the varmints) to the presence of human activity. And when this echo exceeds maximum tolerance levels, the fish simply hunker down and refuse to act like fish. I would too. It's insanity.

     That being said, there is an upside, albeit a bit twisted, to fishing 'The Ford' when there seems to be a body at every opening in the cattails which is another reason I get there as early as possible short of spending the night in my rig. I like to stake my claim early on. Occupy a piece of water, usually one I've come to understand as well as is possible, so that when the traffic increases I will 'own' a stretch that I feel is to my advantage. I think anybody who's experienced this sort of fishing would agree that there is an added dimension that comes into play when three or four fly lines are in the air at the same time all plying for the same piece of water.

     Most fly fishermen openly abhor the idea of fishing competition. The idea of hooking trout in an atmosphere that totally belies the inherent nature of the 'sport' would, to most, seem outside the realm of what fishing with flies is all about. And, for the most part, I would heartily subscribe to that philosophy. However, and I've seen it happen over and over again, when there are several fishermen parrying over the same stretch of water, anyone who thinks that it's anything but an all out battle for that first take, and then the most hookups is purely and simply not understanding what's going on. It's all disguised, of course, in a friendly, convivial gloss; relaxed queries and casual responses dealing with vague references about fish already caught, the flies, maybe a benign comment about the weather, but the intensity is palpable. Soon enough the pleasantries fade as the combatants get down to it, eyes and ears alert to anything that may assist in the divining of a clue. Looking for the sign that will provide an edge. Running those just concluded innocent conversations through their heads over and over looking for tidbits of vital information that may have been inadvertently passed.
    Not all who partake in this 'leisurely' battle of wits are equipped with the cunning necessary. Indeed most are ill-prepared for the mental demands of this seemingly impromptu contest. Being the first fisherman to occupy a space others may find attractive gives me an edge. That, and the fact that I'd been playing this game for years before I realized what was actually taking place.
Most fly fishers don't understand that if and when you are in situations where fishable water is at a premium due to an overabundance of fishermen, then all sorts of subterfuge are possible. False information, dubious claims, outright lies, promises of 'lots' of fish just downstream a ways. I've heard it all. And fell for it many times. Friendly attempts at conversation all too often designed to put you at ease. Don't fall for friendly smiles and seemingly innocent banter if it seems too slick; too choreographed. It's all by design. Keep your secrets close. Betray nothing. Master the art of doublespeak. Be courteous and friendly while keeping your distance. Learn the art of ambiguity and apply it  to questions concerning anything you consider an encroachment. And most importantly, take every tidbit of information too easily dispensed with a few grains of salt. It's a lot like life, in that regard.

     So now it's Friday. I'm glad I didn't get this posted because I had the occasion yesterday to (finally) get acquainted with a couple of gentlemen I've been seeing out at 'The Ford' for years. They're a couple of characters. 


Rich and Bob are 80. They've been fishing buddies for years, and through the years as I've watched them out of the corner of my eye I've come to the conclusion that they're pretty damned good fishermen. Every Thursday about 7:15 in the morning they roll in and shortly after that they'll make their way up the trail past me and holler a good morning as they head upstream to their favorite sections. They don't stay all day, but they do pretty well for the few hours that they're on the water. It got be about 10, and the fishing was good but the catching slow, so I headed back to my rig for a roast beef sandwich. Turns out that Rich and Bob had the same idea. They were sitting in their Subaru alternately munching and napping, which on a warm late morning would not be hard to do. I introduced myself, finally, after all these years, and found them to be as engaging and colorful as I thought they'd be. Then, as I headed back to the water, I had an idea. I'd get a picture of them. They were thrilled when I asked if either one of them had  an e-mail address because I'd send the pic to them. And there you have it; my two Rocky Ford fishing buddies.

          Slow day catching fish. No big deal. I landed several, finally, after deciding that I'd have to do some hunting and pecking. Get out the boxes and tippet spools. Do some leg work. It's not always off the menu. I knew that when I hooked the fish of the day with my trusty Spokane River soft hackle. The fishing's always good, and it's great just 'to be here', but a sudden jolting hookup ain't too bad either.

March 14, 2013

On the perpetual process of reinvention.

   "One of the most difficult accomplishments in fly-tying is to reexamine an established category and do it better and more simply."
       Thomas McGuane, p.68, The Longest Silence

Classic TDR Soft Hackle

Certainly in the end we cast a fly on the water for the same basic reason that we test a hypothesis or read a story - we want to see how it all comes out."
Ted Leeson, p.146, Inventing Montana
        I know it works. For close to ten years now I've  carried several of them, in three different sizes, although I most often favor a #18. And really, it's changed only subtly since its inception, trial period, and subsequent addition to my go-to box. I've been summarily amazed time and time again at its ability to cover so many bases; nearly always adapting well to a variety of methods and situations. I wish all of my boxes were filled with flies that engender so much confidence. 
       Of course we all strive for that, whether we tie our own or not. That every fly will fill a particular void. That for every fly there is a purpose or situation. A fly that represents another chance to solve, even if only temporarily, a mystery, or to uncannily stay ahead of the curve without missing a beat. 
      It would, because of this somewhat bottomless hope, seem easy to think that we have ridiculously lofty aspirations; I myself would never admit (publicly) to seriously pursuing this. Not to anyone who didn't share the same inner conviction, anyway. Nothing like opening yourself up to awkward silences and sidelong glances. Why is it that in vocalizing the unspeakable you somehow cross this mystical line from respect into lunacy? We all pursue it tirelessly, whether we buy our flies or construct them ourselves. Yet the dream remains an unspeakable one. A laughable fantasy at best. Not, however, to me.  
     I'll add one more facet to this fantasy. I'd like to decrease the number of flies I carry by improving my techniques. Produce more with less. Perfect simple patterns that cover more bases because I understand and know how to utilize them in more situations. In my mind's eye that is the nexus. That is where I wish to go. For a lot of fishermen, it's go-to boxes or a go-to fly or the hottest new pattern or the hell with this spot I'm moving downstream. But after all's been aired out and they're standing there still scratching their heads, well then what's left? It seems to me as I've observed fishermen over the years that if there's one common denominator missing from the equation it's technique. It's the lack of repertoire on the fisherman's part. This is often the case with those of us who pretty much carry a fly shop with us to the river. It subverts our attention from the possibility of a combination of technique and fly working together. Focus is too sharply trained on the fly. It's gotta be the fly, they think, and they rummage tirelessly through all of them over and over looking for the magic that might have revealed itself to them six flies ago had their method of presentation been more adroit.
       All of us who fish with flies do it that way for different reasons, although it wouldn't be hard for me to divide most of us into maybe two or three main groups. One of those would be the 'OH' group. 'OH' for obsessive. That's where I'd be. The criteria for admission into this group is simple; have an overriding obsession with any/and or/all aspects of attracting trout/fish to eat your fly, and live for the take. Here are some prerequisites -
    1) Spending way too much of what should have been profitable, constructive (in a normal person's eyes) time at the vise on a regular basis puzzling over how to create a simple fly that works in a variety of situations.
    2) Devoting three or more sections in your box to flies with only the subtlest of variation from your control (favorite) fly.
    3) Keeping the number of variations to a bare minimum so you have a pretty good idea as to what's working and what isn't.
    4) Fishing these flies for as many consecutive days as you can to determine true adaptability to as many situations as possible for as much of each consecutive day as is possible.
    5) Taking all the input you've gathered and starting all over again at the vise.
     If you satisfy these, then you belong with me in the 'OH' group. 
        Everyone else need not apply. They're only going through the motions.

     The other day I was going through some of my fly boxes, busily sorting the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. After working away for a while, I sat back and realized how many flies I've been carrying that never made it to the water. For years! Literally hundreds of them! I collected and emptied the whole pile of them into the pint glass I keep for such occasions, nearly filling it. I then sat back, laughed out loud, then and there swearing  an oath to keep my approach to tying and carrying flies as austere as possible. Here it is more than three weeks later now and it makes even better sense. If I streamline my scheme I make better use of time, resource, and intellect. Time spent hashing through flies is not time well spent. 
       I have recently, after some years of distance, reconnected with a close friend who years ago became that close friend because his fishing and tying philosophies closely reflected mine. It's fascinating to discover that even through the ten or so years while we were absent from each other's journey, through the years of separate fishing lives and experiences where  our arcs basically totally diverged, we have nonetheless arrived (again) at the same place at the same time. I was sitting patiently in a semi-dark theatre waiting for the annual traveling fish-porn show to start, heard my name called, and there he was. And then a week later at the yearly steelhead porn show there he was again. It didn't take long to plan a fishing foray and a few days later there we were at 0-dark-thirty blasting west on I-90 on a fishing expedition trading lies, theories and hypotheses concerning our favorite subjects, all of which centered around fishing with and the tying of soft hackled flies. Dan's so into it he's even conceptualized and tied a series of them for steelhead, his foremost obsession. I've been fortunate to have seen a few of them and they are impressive. I know he's on to something good. They just simply look fishy. The fact that they tugged at something deep within me should not go unmentioned; I've been inspired enough to set aside time to create some of my own. For good reason, of course, because Dan's got a trailer he hauls down to the Clearwater in the late summer. What an advantage it would be for me, eh?
      We share another obsession. Fishing the Spokane with soft hackled flies. It's been several years since we fished the river together, but his flies also reflect a similar, 'less is better' style. We may differ as to what the more prominent 'triggers' may be, but the idea that a simplistic approach is more desirable has captured our eyes and imaginations. 
     Of course the work, the trial and error, and the conjecture goes on and on. Even though I have an essential ingredient for somewhat consistent success in my possession, there will always be room for another, and another after that. But the road to success is best covered one brick at a time.

            Keep it simple. Always.


November 15, 2012

The fly.

The fly, we reason, is what makes things happen, and so using a different one should make things happen differently.
                   Ted Leeson, Patterns of Behavior, Inventing Montana

Always look at what you have left. Never look at what you have lost. 
Robert Schuller

        It's almost noon on a humid, chilly Friday. The weather this morning had been patient with me until about a half hour ago, but that has run its course. Rain falls from the dense grayness of the early November sky, contrasted against the forest green of the trees across the river, while I work methodically, carefully down. The rain's not such a big deal if I'm further down the river. But now, I work against time, having chosen the Cemetery Run. It's enticing to me, with its curious blend of seams and fierce riffle. The problem is, I'm just downstream from the mouth of Latah (Hangman, if you're a native) Creek, which, when the rains come, is notorious for quickly going off-color and shortly after that spewing it's effluvial flush into the river, effectively buttoning fish lips and putting them down, way down, often for days. 
     The lure of this stretch of water lies in the frequent 'pushes'. The fierce flow of the main riffle periodically sends pulses of hydraulic upwellings downstream and across into the softer water on the inside (my side) of the slight bend that entails the hundred and few odd yards of this particular stretch. I find them interesting because I've hooked a lot of fish when first I got lucky and then after putting some thought into it began to time my casts so that my swinging fly would be caught up in the front edge of the advancing push. On several occasions I've had solid strikes when it's near the end of its swing and gets swept up in the vertically rolling current. My thinking, upon observation after experiencing a few violent takes is that a couple of things may be at work here. The first theory is that the vertically oriented twisting of the current alters the path of my fly line or leader, causing a sudden change in the path of my fly, which is almost always a soft hackle or a two fly rig. The second explanantion is easier to understand in that I treat the edges of the 'push' as I would a classic seam, which is really what they are, except that they're temporary. When the push spends itself, the seam simply goes away. After seriously working these anomalies over the past few weeks both here and at different locations on the river, I'll try, when I see a 'push' coming, to put my fly at the front or slightly ahead of it. The trout seem to know that 'push' will carry food and are waiting at the deep edge of the softer water on cue to snap at anything that gets collected and resembles a meal. The takes are usually quite solid, meaning that either there may have been some effort put into chasing down the target rather than having it come by at a more or less constant speed. Or, it's a take that is similar to the 'snatch and grab' technique employed in the seam off of a faster flow. This is all merely conjecture on my part and should not be taken seriously, unless, of course, you've maybe experienced a similar phenomenon. Having said that, a lot of fly fishermen are often hesitant to subscribe to anything other than their own time-tested, although maybe not as consistently successful routines, although they'd be quick to enroll should they step out of their box and discover otherwise.
      I watch the latest surge slowly spend itself in the soft water directly downstream and start my retrieve slowly with one long, slow pull. The belly in my fly line, which now more closely resembles a lazy 's' as the push disintegrates unevenly, instantly begins, at great speed, to straighten, then quickly transfers itself in the form of a solid pull to my rod. "I'll be damned! Wonder which one he ate", I query no one in particular (I admit to talking to myself more and more as I age), tighten on him, raise my rod and am amazed for a second or two at the fact that he ate when at that point I'm amazed that it's a larger rainbow than I thought who quickly realizes he's hooked and with a single effective seizure-like shake breaks me off. I stand silently, hands down for a few moments amazed at what just transpired, then strip back line to see what kind of damage the fish did to my two fly rig. Upon inspection I discover that he'd escaped with my bottom fly; in this case a #18 classic TDR soft hackle.

   Depending on the circumstances, losing a fly to a fish can be no big deal or, if it's the result of something I did poorly or not at all, it is cause for immediate and severe self recrimination. But, even though I may have in all likelihood screwed up, the fish still ate my fly and that's something to feel good about. Of course, if it was the fish of the day and I've nothing to show for it but empty tippet, you can bet I'll be muttering.

      There are events in our lives that are 'light bulb' moments. I've had so many of these in my life as a fisherman/tier that it gets hard to keep track of them all. Then add to that the fact that I fish the Spokane and you've got THE light bulb moment times ten. That one all by itself still ranks right up there in the top half of the top ten. It opened my eyes. But, and more importantly, I feel that because I chose the Spokane, I finally began to fully comprehend what it takes to be a competent and self-sustaining fly tier. Understanding that began very quickly to translate itself into making me a better fisherman. Not only because I got more proficient at the vise; that in turn affected my need to improve my skills with the rod. Even perfect flies won't catch fish if they're not worked properly, or in the correct situations.
       The absolute thrill of hooking fish on flies I've conceptualized, created, and perfected are without exception  the most satisfying moments of my life. Nothing, save for the birth of my sons will even come close. And, as mentioned in previous posts, it adds a healthy dose of adrenalin to every take.

        There are a lot of ways to learn to tie flies, some good,  some not so good, and then there was my way. Almost from the outset I was, for all intents and purposes, on my own. I had zero credible input. Other than my fishing, my father, my mind's eye and the elementary primer included in the kit were all I had as standards of measure.  But, I knew the one big thing going in; it was not going to happen overnight. It was a foregone conclusion that time was the bank. To be a fly tier was to understand that perseverance over time was a sound investment.
       My dad wasn't a tier, but he'd seen a lot of flies. His was the gospel of Dan Bailey in the form of first a fly catalogue that would arrive every December, and then, periodically through the next few months, boxes of flies ordered through the mail. I will always remember his 'ruck sack', the army-olive ruck sack that served as his repository. It was stuffed with so many boxes of Dan Bailey flies that I had to wonder why he had so many! Hundreds of them! Most all of them were dries save for a couple of small boxes of woolly worms way down at the bottom, which told me that they were not in use very often. That bag went with him everywhere every time he went fishing! Dad embodied the characteristics of those fly fishers who are bought and sold by eye candy. In his mind, a beautiful fly equated to success on the water, and the more he had, why the better the chances were. I really don't know how many he ever really used. His boxes were tediously sorted, kept updated and absolutely chock full, terribly revealing about the man that owned them. I'd spend hours going through each box, closely examining each fly, asking questions like, where do you use this one?, or, when do you use this one, etc? And I don't ever remember him tiring of my constant, somewhat repetitious inquiries. Talking fishing and flies, even if it was with a son who had yet to really understand the depth and magnitude of his involvement, was always worth the time. 

      I look back on those first years of tying knowing that it probably would have been beneficial to have actually had some real, one-on-one instruction though in reality it would be years before I received any viable input, not having the confidence in even my embryonic abilities to feel comfortable asking for guidance. It was fun, a bit satisfying and at the same time frustrating, knowing what I wanted to see but not having the ability level to bring it to fruition. But, looking back now, I guess I don't have any regrets. It's a work in progress, but I've become adept at visualizing what I want to create and along the way have invented and perfected many of my own methods while developing into a pretty decent tier without any real mentoring, and that ends up feeling very satisfying. 
      The years progressed as I became more and more interested in the Spokane River. My flies and methods for fishing them were continually evolving. I was, for a lot of years not aware of that many people who fished the Spokane as much or as often as I did. Actually, it never even occurred to me to find out. I was tying flies and fishing, completely, blissfully immersed in my own little world at the vise and on the water. Of course, some days were better than others, that will always be a reality. But, somewhere along the line it began  to dawn on me, probably after a few successive days of utter frustration, that maybe the bad days were, in the long run, probably more important than I'd ever thought. So instead of basically going through the motions for a few hours or until the frustration got too unmanageable whereupon I'd throw in the towel, I decided to stay engaged, and I began see that bad days, especially a string of them, while being a great leveling device, were also plateaus from which I could more impartially examine and evaluate my schemes, whether it might mean fly, fishing method, time of day, and so on.  Fly fishermen are sometimes quick to let the ego get over-inflated with a little success and just as quick to doubt their whole program during the slack times. I was/am no different in that regard. The thing that separated me from most others was the fact that I had only myself to fall back on when I'd ring up zeroes, and no one to boast to when I kicked ass. Fishing alone makes it easier to get shut out and not have it be such a big deal, although it can be just as frustrating when it's been a fish-filled day. I wasn't very far into my years of fishing when I discovered this. Who's going to believe you? Luckily I didn't have anyone to tell, either way, so it was easier to develop a 'convenient amnesia' through the shut outs, a quiet pride through the successes and continue on, always aware of the constant probability in balance between the good days and the bad. 

        My testing ground for my flies, being the same water that I've fished for all these years now, continues to thrill, frustrate, and confuse me. But, like a faithful companion, it scolds as often as it cradles me, admonishing me in subtle ways to always keep my head clear. It is my staunchest supporter or severest critic, most always willing to forgive as long as I respect what it preaches; keep sight of what is essential and jettison that which is merely superfluous. When I forget, disavow or allow too much of my ego to show, the river sternly takes me to task. 

      In an early post I described the first flies I tied.  Pheasant tail nymphs and wooly buggers were the most commonplace, gradually giving way to attempts at dry flies. At this point I was beginning to frequent sporting goods stores and then actual specialty shops where I could examine the flies that were for sale. I began to buy a few flies, mostly very simple patterns, so I could take them home and attempt to tie them. This practice proved to be worthwhile. With one of these copies, a yellow-bodied #16 soft hackle I tasted my first success on the Spokane. It was a watershed experience. I was seriously, totally hooked for life at the instant of that take. Standing knee deep in a swirling back eddy wearing my father's leaky neoprene waders under a pair of plain hiking boots, I knew then that this was just the beginning of a lifelong adventure.

        I tie flies for and fish the Spokane River. Now almost exclusively. All of my energies relating to the tying bench reflect this obsession with the fish there. Not to say that the flies I create wouldn't work elsewhere. The simple truth of it is that they do. I've had tremendous success with my classic soft hackle as well as with various dries, especially those relating to the caddis family, at venues like the Henry's Fork, the Beaverhead and the Missouri, in B.C. on the Elk and also up on the higher reaches of the North Fork of the Couer d'Alene and the St. Joe, to mention just a few. I have the utmost confidence in being able to 'match the hatch', no matter what mayfly or terrestrial may be predominant at the time. And I'm not afraid to get down and dirty with streamer patterns like my newest wool-headed sculpin. 
         But the fly that keeps me enchanted year after year after year is the soft hackle. That fly, and the methods by which it can be fished have, year in and year out, provided me with more hours of joy and satisfaction than all the others put together. Of course, in saying that I could mention the opposite side of that coin which brings into focus all the hours of frustrating consternation when they let me down. But that wouldn't be correct, because they rarely do. It is I that lets me down. I'll attempt to explain.

      In the past oh, let's say ten years, I've developed a variety, a significant number, of soft hackles just for the Spokane. I say 'just', because it's in reality been quite awhile since I've fished anywhere else, other than my winter fishing on a slow-moving spring creek west of town which bears little or no resemblance to the Spokane for which I've also developed several productive patterns which include, of all things, a soft hackle. But save for a blue-winged olive pattern that I'll use elsewhere, those flies are pretty location specific, the nature of spring creeks being what it is.

      I've got three distinctly different types of soft hackle in my box, and six if you count the swimming caddis patterns. The three 'real' softee patterns are all similarly colored and constructed, the difference being in the amount of weight I'll use. Most of the time I'll use a few wraps of lead (substitute) on the shank, and to be more specific, I'll use more or fewer wraps depending on the water speed and how deep I want the fly to be when it starts its arcing swing back across. I've come to understand the importance of working different depths. 
     This year I got pretty taken with the challenges presented in swinging flies through faster water. Takes in the fiercest flows are nothing short of electrifying, and I found that by using a tungsten bead along with a few wraps of lead I increase the odds that my soft hackle is going to arouse some interest as it swings through. It's always amazing to me when I hook up in fiercely flowing chutes. I wonder how a fish could not only be in there but also have the wherewithal to attack possible prey. But, in saying that I admit to looking at those fast chutes through very human eyes. I can't possibly see the bottom with its holding lies and compressions that undoubtedly provide good cover while being an excellent platform from which to obtain food. But what I have begun to understand are the surface characteristics I should look for which will give me the best chance for success. There are fish, more often than not of decent size, in those places so it's a matter of understanding where, and how best to get the fly through it. The beauty of fishing this way lies in the fact that the fish will usually attack without reservation. They know they've only got one shot before it's past them, thus the solid, often crushing takes. And, more often than not you'll see the take. Even with a tungsten bead and wraps of lead, that fly is coming across, depending on the speed of the flow, at or very near the surface. It's quite a visual to experience. Adrenalin management is paramount, otherwise you'll be tying on another fly. 

      The two flies pictured above are my current favorites for my two fly setup. The top fly is the caddis. It's a derivation of a standard Troth-style dry, and came to be because of the success of tugging on the line and pulling the dry one under at the end of a drift. All I did was omit the hackle on the body, add a copper rib, and  either some partridge or dyed brown hen neck, sparingly, after I tied in the wing. I've got similarly flies with several different colored wings depending on what I see actually on the water at the time, but the olive-winged version seems to be the most consistent. 
      The soft hackle (trailer) is small, lightly weighted, and is often eaten when fished by itself right before BWOs are seen on the surface. It's basically just another caddis imitation, but I also think it imitates an emerging olive nymph being swept in the current. It's hard to be sure, especially because I see such a good number of caddis on the water pretty constantly during the cooler mornings and also in the late afternoon to past sunset.

       As always, even though these particular flies have found a home in my box, they're still a work in progress. Everything I fish the Spokane with is in a constant state of change. It would be terrible to wake up one morning and not wonder what I might do differently, or better. For me, that's the name of the game.